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Residents, historians grapple with story of two destructive fires within year

June 23, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 12:49 pm
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The Waldo Canyon fire was a nightmare, a confluence of relentless drought, hot and windy weather, bad luck and years of people pushing their homes and lives closer to the wilderness.

But catastrophic wildfires only hit once every 50 years, fire scientists say. The fire happened and Colorado Springs slowly moved on.

No one said there couldn't be another Waldo Canyon fire - in fact, many have warned for years that Colorado Springs and its many arid, semi-wilderness neighborhoods are always primed for wildfire.

Still, when El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa saw a smoke plume unfurling over Black Forest on June 11, he was in disbelief. This happens to California, not to Colorado.

"I'm gonna drive up there and take a look," Maketa thought. "All I could think about is, this can't be happening again."

On a similarly hot June day nearly a year earlier, Maketa was driving west on U.S. 24 watching a formidable smoke plume burst and grow behind Cedar Heights. Now, he was standing in Black Forest, a sprawling community among a dense pine-tree maze, seeing the same thing.

"Within 15 minutes I saw a house burning," he said. "There wasn't any time to get an assessment. It was a house burning. How can this happen to a community two years in a row? I know you expect that in Black Forest - we've done so much mitigation in there. I was just telling myself, how can this happen again?"

It did happen again - and to a community still recovering from another devastating wildfire. In the wake of the Black Forest fire, El Paso County's historical trajectory has taken a sharp turn, into a new realm. From this point forward, the community's biggest milestones - the gold rush, the arrival of the military, the growth and collapse of the economy - will now count among them the deaths of four people and the destruction of nearly 900 homes in one year. All corners of El Paso County have been swept up in unfolding history, in a story without an ending.

The Waldo Canyon fire anniversary events this week also are caught in an odd time-warp - one group of people is ending a year of struggle as another is beginning the journey. Celebrations of moving home are tainted by a new fire and a new focus that impacts, for better or for worse, the recovery for re-traumatized residents. Or, the Black Forest fire could perhaps transform Waldo Canyon survivors from victims into veterans. How the story will unfold - whether the county recovers together, or is pushed further apart by disparate experiences - remains to be seen.

History in the making

The Black Forest fire started on a hot, dry Tuesday afternoon; its rapidly growing plume could be seen from around the county. Within minutes the smoke's colors began to change, from a cloud-like white to faint brown. By dusk, the smoke was black.

The next day, on June 12, a group of historians at the Pioneers Museum sat down to re-think a Waldo Canyon fire exhibit that had been in the works for months. Would the new fire change the story?

"There was a moment - we were sitting (together) on Wednesday morning right at the height of this, and I don't think we'd gotten a real sense of how big this fire was," said Matt Mayberry, the museum's director, a week later. "It feels like, ok, we've got this. We know how to do this."

Thus far, Waldo Canyon's greatest gift to the Black Forest fire has been lessons learned. Maketa dubbed the air response to the fire the "fastest" that he had ever seen, in part because of mistakes made during the Waldo Canyon fire. Posts on Twitter and Facebook erupted, giving displaced residents a place to commune together. The Disaster Assistance Center fell into place quickly, following a model that El Paso County Commissioners created during last summer's fire.

"All of those things fell into place even faster," said Mayberry.

The Black Forest fire had a ferocious momentum, and by its third day surpassed the Waldo Canyon fire as the most destructive in Colorado history; everyday as the home-loss count climbed, the Black Forest fire became more destructive.

"It feels like the wind was knocked out of you," Mayberry said.

In the week before the Waldo Canyon fire exhibit's opening, history changed.

The Black Forest fire destroyed 511 homes and claimed the lives of two people, Marc and Robin Herklotz. Mayberry and the cluster of now perplexed historians cancelled last weeks pre-opening celebrations - it didn't seem quite right to celebrate a pivotal milestone in fire recovery, as another fire burned.

It was a hard decision, Mayberry said, that disappointed a some Mountain Shadows residents and relieved others.

"Some people are feeling, 'Oh, thank god, I couldn't go through that'," Mayberry said of the museum's opening celebrations. "There are also people who feel that it's important to make sure the Waldo story is told.

"We just don't know how to feel about all this."

Will the Waldo exhibit change? Will Mayberry spend the next year creating another for Black Forest? He doesn't know.

"It's hard for historians to tell contemporary history," he said. "Because the story isn't done yet."

Waldo veterans rally

Carla Albers, who lost her home in the Waldo Canyon fire, was on the phone making hotel reservations in Delaware, when she realized that Colorado's image has changed.

The hotel clerk, thousands of miles away, knew of the fires.

"You really weren't known as the place with the fires," the clerk told Albers. "You think of that more out in California."

Colorado, the Rocky Mountain state, the state of gold prospectors and hikers, has a new reputation. Yes, Albers thought, we are known for fire.

The nation, and the world, may be watching Colorado as it burns, but no one knows wildfire like people who have lost homes, Albers said. And so two weeks ago, Albers welcomed a small group of Black Forest survivors into her home - rebuilt, on Yankton Place - to tell them what she knew.

She wanted to demystify some of the insurance, rebuilding and life decisions that face this summer's group of fire victims.

"What we found after the fire, you are just in a fog because you're not sure what's going to happen. It's kind of fear of the unknown," she said.

The entire city of Colorado Springs was thrown into the unknown on June 26, 2012. Cities don't need know how to fight wildfire, there are wildland crews who do that. But, cities must recover on their own, something Colorado Springs wasn't prepared to do, said Mayor Steve Bach in June.

"I think we had a game plan for emergency responders," he said, speaking of the Waldo Canyon fire. "We did not have a plan for the aftermath."

The plan that emerged, through Colorado Springs Together, was put on a fast track, and nearly a year after the fire city officials lauded Mountain Shadows for "recovering" faster than any other statewide community hit by wildfire. But the non-profit's role now - juggling the needs of still-recovering fire victims with the needs of new ones - is as unformed as it was last July. As a start, it did launch a mentor program with Albers' help. A few others, like Albers, are in a good place, finally, to do it. Others are not.

"I have friends who lost homes in Waldo who are not in place where they feel like they can do this," because their memories of Waldo Canyon are too raw, Albers said.

Albers experience can help chart the course for the Black Forest fire survivors, who are walking into a community that, at least, has spent the past year culling many resources for people like them.

But all the resources in the world cannot make the toughest decisions. Will they, for instance, rebuild? Can they? And what will become of the severely burned forest, reduced now in many places to little better than a collection of charcoal sticks?

"It was shocking to me that it happened again," Albers said. "I thought, it (Waldo Canyon fire) was going to be the worst disaster in Colorado history for many, many years. To have happen twice is overwhelming."

A year after her own disaster, Albers is doing better. But, she's not where she thought she'd be.

"I just feel so bad, because I know how hard this year is going to be," she said.

How hard will it be, for a community hit twice by disasters in one year?

Only time will tell.

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